Don't be swayed by the sales pitch, read our foolproof guide to financial services.
Buying financial products isn't the same as buying a car or a games console: you can't actually see something physical. That means it's easier to get confused and end up with the wrong product. So don't let the small print fool you, take the time to understand everything to make sure you protect yourself.
Get the paperwork
Whatever you're buying, ask for written, signed confirmation of all possible charges, including those for missing a payment. Also ask if there is a 'cooling off period' - most reputable firms have one. If it's not written down, it never happened.
Thanks to the credit crunch finding a bank account that pays a decent rate of interest is even harder these days, so it's essential to shop around. Check out Moneyextra to compare different accounts online.
When it comes to borrowing, the difference in interest rates can be huge. You wouldn't buy a car for ten times its market value, would you? Yet millions of Britons are paying over the odds to borrow money. Again, shop around, and always ask for the APR, it's the easiest way to compare rates.
If you have a bit of cash saved up, consider 'open' banking. This is a relatively new type of account where you can offset interest on your current account against borrowing, like a mortgage. This can save you money because the company concerned is lucky to have both your saving and borrowing business.
Take advantage of tax-free
Saving tax is the same as saving money. Look for ISAs and other savings products that are tax-effective and may even pay a better rate of interest than an ordinary account. Money that doesn't go to the taxman goes to you!
Whatever you're buying, ask for written, signed confirmation of all possible charges, including those for missing a payment.
Accept expert help
Talk to your bank manager. If you've got money worries, don't hide your bills. Banks charge a fortune for letters telling you what you already know! Instead, talk to your bank. It's their job to look after you, and to help you resolve your worries. You'll save money in the long run.
Get a financial advisor (IFA). Some will charge you a fee for helping whilst others rely on commission from the products you buy. So check what kind of IFA you are speaking with first. Some products may only be available through an adviser and many of them will give you a better rate. Look for the blue 'IFA' logo - it's a guarantee of independent impartial advice.
Beware of special offers
Always look at the overall cost of buying a product. For example, mortgages credit cards often have a very low rate for the first six months - but that's no use if a whopping rate is charged for the rest of the time. Similarly, mortgage lenders may attract borrowers by offering low rates only to claw back the cash with huge set-up fees.
It is also worth checking what you actually get for your money. Be sure to read the small print. Cheap car insurance, for example, may not offer such good cover (e.g. can you drive abroad, or drive another person's car?). Small print is small because they don't want you to bother reading it. Protect yourself and get a good deal.
Beware pressure sales. This is true in two situations. First, if anyone insists on coming to your house, run a mile. Second, if you feel pressured in a bank or estate agency meeting, ask to leave and return later. It's a classic trick of estate agents especially to try to sell you a mortgage at the same time as you look at a house. If you feel off guard, leave. It's your right.
Learn to complain. If you think you've been treated unfairly, say so. There are many high profile success stories where individuals have successfully retrieved their money (or some of it) from a financial company that has been in the wrong. There's an ombudsman for most types of financial product, and the Financial Services Authority can also often help.
Finally, don't forget that you're the customer. Financial companies do very well out of you, so it's your right to know everything about a product, and it's your right to shop around.
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